The Gospel according to St. Francis of W. 47th Street

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My daily walk takes me past a beautiful life-sized woodcut statue of St. Francis of Assisi, who stands quietly amidst a residential home’s backyard garden on W. 47th Street and blesses a curled woodcut fawn and the steady stream of real-life birds, squirrels, dogs, bunnies, cats, raccoons, butterflies and other magical creatures of this ubernatural world we call Minneapolis, a city for all seasons if ever there was one, and good god how glorious has the weather been this week?

For St. Francis’s calming presence, I always make sure to thank Nancy Hennen, the statue’s owner, who reports that walkers often make the sign of the cross as they walk by, and that worshippers regularly come by to pray at the carving that she and her husband Ed commissioned from a Hibbing chainsaw artist 10 years ago.

“The statue itself is benevolent, and somehow blessed,” said Nancy, a former librarian at the public elementary school down the road named for John S. Burroughs (aka the Grand Old Man of Nature), the naturalist and environmentalist whom biographers have called “the most important practitioner after Henry David Thoreau of that especially American literary genre, the nature essay,” and who said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

Sign me up. The St. Francis statue stands as an abidingly soulful gift to the neighborhood, an elegant work of art, and definitely a spiritual touchstone for me, coming as it does early in my walk and just before I hit the lake with all my thoughts, worries, dreams, music and meditations: No matter what’s happening with me or my walking partner and dog Zero, the St. Francis statue slows me down and humbles me into the moment itself (“His eyes move as the seasons change,” swears Nancy) and always puts me in the loving mind of Jesus and Francis, my favorite Catholic saint along with Bernadette, the asthmatic peasant girl who saw 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in a rose garden in Lourdes, France, and who stuck to her story of beholding otherworldly beauty, awe, and faith until the day she died.

St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment (not to mention the full-blown flora, fauna, and fantastic fall colors currently blowing up in a patch of sun near you, Minnesota), and a mystic (“While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart”), and he worked hard to make sure that his soul was one with the animals, nature and the universe. He took a vow of poverty, was a community spiritual leader and organizer, and he believed in the timeless truths that come from praying and meditation and the wisdom that comes from listening to the rustle of the wind through the trees, the waves lapping on the shore, the chirping of birds, bees, cicadas crickets.

To that end, on Monday, in honor of “A Natural History Of The Senses” author Diane Ackerman’s 65th birthday, I took the slowest walk around Lake Harriet that has ever been lollygagged in the history of that storied body of water. I wanted to get my St. Francis on, and I wanted to purposefully live out with intention and attention something Ackerman wrote:

“When I go biking, I repeat a mantra of the day’s sensations: bright sun, blue sky, warm blue jay’s call, ice melting and so on. This helps me transcend the traffic, ignore the clamorings of work, leave all the mind theaters behind and focus on nature instead. I still must abide by the rules of the road, of biking, of gravity. But I am mentally far way from civilization. The world is breaking someone else’s heart.”

Monday, the world was breaking the hearts of all who have tuned in exclusively to the chaos of the government shutdown, the debt ceiling crisis, the corporate dismantling of the Minnesota Orchestra, and all other perceived news and blues that comes with being human. Also, Monday was the day after the Twin Cities Marathon, which historically — for me, anyway — has always marked the start of the contemplative season around these parts, highlighted by lots of long, leafy, thoughtful walks.

For the runners, after months of endorphins, training, and finally finishing a goal and dream come true, the next day of rest is one of slowing down and licking wounds and reflection. For the whole of us, the empty beaches and less crowded running, walking, and biking paths signal a similar change of pace, and there’s no better time than a Minnesota autumn to blot out the technology of the day and the hyper-connectedness of our networks and usurping the forces that Ackerman dubs “the sensory misers” that would have us living apart from the natural world.

“The sensory misers will inherit the earth, but first they will make it not worth living on,” Ackerman writes. “When you consider something like death, after which we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably won’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly.” 

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at madripple@earthlink.net and at www.jimwalshmpls.com